UA’s Calley: He’s not a suit

Hollywood agents, executives and filmmakers said Tuesday that United Artists president John Calley could bring a maverick style to the movie business if the 62-year-old lives up to his track record as a laissez faire executive more interested in the filmmaking process than studio politics.

“John is highly amusing, extremely bright, and he doesn’t walk around on his knuckles,” said Richard Shepherd, partner at the Artists Agency and co-head of production with Calley at Warner Bros. in the 1970s. “If studio executives are tarred with the reputation of being suits, he’s not a suit.” 131

The surprise choice of MGM/UA chairman Frank Mancuso, Calley was heralded by all but a few as an “inspired” selection to build UA from a barren company with little more than James Bond, Pink Panther and Rocky remake rights.

“If you had asked me 10 people who Frank (Mancuso) would appoint, I would never have thought of John’s name,” said Leonard Goldberg, current producer and former chairman at 20th Century Fox. “But he brings to the table a viewpoint that is different and refreshing.”

Critics of Calley’s appointment questioned his ability to navigate Hollywood’s fast lane, citing his age and relationships with but a handful of established directors and such top agents as Michael Ovitz, Jeff Berg and Arnold Rifkin.

“You need someone who gets up every day to kill,” said one producer. “Do you think he’s going to come in here from his home in Connecticut, having already succeeded as an executive and producer, with the killer instinct?”

Still ‘dynamic’

Columbia Pictures executive veepee Sid Ganis said questions over Calley’s age and ability to relate to a younger audience are unfounded. “He’s as smart and as youthful as any kid executive I know in the business today,” Ganis said.

“I knew him during his days at Warner Bros., and he was one of the most dynamic executives in the biz,” said Ganis, who has recently worked with Calley on theupcoming Columbia Pictures release “Remains of the Day.””I can tell you, he hasn’t lost an ounce of it.”

Columbia Pictures chairman Mark Canton said Calley’s experience will serve him well at UA.

“On the one hand, he hasn’t done this type of work in 12 years, which is a rather long sabbatical,” Canton said. “On the other hand, he’s a class act and someone people will root for.” Calley will need all the help he can get because he takes the reins of a truly unique operation. The last film released by United Artists — a part of MGM since 1981 — was “Rocky V” in December 1990. And many question whether the company has the start-up capital needed to get back on the boards.

“The question is, ‘Are they going to spend money?’ ” said one packaging agent. “This is not a studio where we’re going to take our best projects.”

Starting from scratch

Goldberg said all of Calley’s experience and resourcefulness will be tested. Like many others, Goldberg pointed out that Calley is “in effect starting a major studio from scratch. He has no one to talk to. I don’t even know whether there is a receptionist at UA. That’s a massive task.”

Not since Walt Disney Studios chairman Jeffrey Katzenberg attempted the start-up of Hollywood Pictures has a studio executive been saddled with starting a full-fledged studio production arm with zero inventory. In the Hollywood Pictures scenario, a screenplay buying spree produced such losers as “One Good Cop” and “The Marrying Man,” as well as the winner “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.”

Industry sources say UA is leaning toward making fewer, slightly lower-budget films with a more laissez faire attitude than MGM. For example, UA would dabble in international co-productions and “Miramax-style” arthouse films, while MGM would take a more traditional tack on heavy development, more involvement in production and a broader based distribution schedule. In that scenario, UA would make six to eight pictures a year starting from budgets of about $ 5 million. Despite such speculation, rumor has it that Mancuso is considering acquiring the estimated $ 30 million to $ 40 million production of the Richard Gere/Michelle Pfeiffer starrer “Higgins & Beech” for UA.

Big deals

Others expect Calley to eventually give rise at UA to the same type of massive star and directing deals that he championed at Warner Bros. in the mid- 1970s, when WB was revived by such stars as Clint Eastwood and Barbra Streisand and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

WB executive veepee of special projects Joe Hyams said Calley absolutely “brought the elite type of filmmaker to the studio,” while one top producer said Calley represents the forerunner “to the entire Terry Semel style of business” where producers like Joel Silver and Arnold Kopelson and stars like Eastwood and Mel Gibson enjoy massive latitude in return for loyalty to the studio.

One twist is a virtual lock at UA under Calley. Throughout Hollywood, top filmmakers, producers and executives believe Calley will move quickly to greenlight the next installment of UA’s James Bond franchise. “Bond at any price is a sure profitability move,” said one top production executive.

Mark Gordon, producer of Hollywood Pictures’ “Swing Kids,” expects Calley to “bring a great deal of direction to the new venture.” He said UA’s current barren landscape could actually be an advantage for Calley as he moves the company forward. “He has the opportunity to start fresh, with no old business to deal with, no egos and no political issues,” Gordon said.

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